I’m Back! A Child Welfare Roundup

My dear three readers, it has been a while. I spent most of 2022 getting out of a late-pandemic rut, returning to the world (safely), focusing on my cases, revamping our syllabus, and playing a few video games that needed my attention.

But now I’m back, ready to write long posts on the internet that absolutely nobody will read. I can’t think of a better way to restart than a Child Welfare Roundup of everything I haven’t talked about over the last year. Ok, some things I haven’t talked about. Let’s jump in.

The numbers are going down, except in the one place they’re not

I’ve missed spamming the internet with child welfare graphs, so here’s the big one. The number of kids Florida DCF has under its supervision has been decreasing very gradually since October 2017. DCF is removing fewer kids but also discharging fewer kids, so what’s happening to all the kids left in the system?

Data Source: DCF Dashboards.

Currently, only the Southern Region (Miami + the Keys) has an increasing foster care population. Removals are far outpacing discharges. Is it a policy choice after all the talk about how the region is over-funded? Go read about it here. That would certainly be unfortunate.

Data Source: DCF Dashboards

The GAL Program’s new look

File this one under “If it ain’t broke.” The Guardian ad Litem Program has a 30-year monopoly on child representation in Florida. The name, the logo, the whole aesthetic has positive associations across the state. People donate money at their events, and obituaries describe volunteering with the Program as proof of a life well lived. It is, to the frustration of people who want to expand other models in Florida, a very strong brand.

So naturally the leadership at the Program decided to toss it in the garbage and try something new. The GAL Program is now the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, which to be fair is its actual legal name. And here’s the old logo and the new one side by side. What do you think?

The new one is nice enough. It crams a lot of elements in. Visually, the white space is a broken heart, which is sad; but the positive space is a shield, which I guess is a metaphor for where the Office is headed. Typographically, it’s a “G” for guardian, but also a folded up “S” for something else? Cartographically, it’s a small, yellow Florida sheltering under a brave, blue Croatia. I don’t really understand that one.

Aside from the Fedex-style hidden heart, it doesn’t convey “children” or “best interests” to me. As a brand mark, what emotion does it evoke? Nostalgia for the simpler days when they used the National CASA logo of a person parachuting in on a red heart. That one showed love, caring, and running into the fray for children. I have a bunch of lapel pins they used to give out at events in a box somewhere. The new one is fine, but it will take time to build the associations. Goodbye, little leaping friend.

You want to speak to the manager?

Every agency got a new head while I wasn’t paying attention. The new APD head is from DCF. The new DCF head is from AHCA. The new AHCA head is from Boston. The new GAL Office head is from the GAL Office, but he’s maybe not the new head because nobody can confirm that the statutory selection rules were followed. Failure to properly appoint an agency head doesn’t matter until it absolutely does. Someone should look into that. Quickly. I’m serious.

How’s that SB 80 going?

Back in 2021, the legislature passed SB 80, which added significant procedural requirements whenever kids change placements or schools. You have to do an MDT staffing and vote on whether you agree with the change, and if there’s not consensus then it goes to DCF for some kind of review. My experience so far is these staffings sometimes get announced a couple of hours in advance and, if you manage to attend and don’t agree that the change was in the child’s best interest, you get chided about how that was the only option so what else do you want them to do? I’ve also heard stories of the process being used defensively by the Department to delay reunifications and things they don’t support. I haven’t experienced that.

You also have to do evaluations, staffings, and hearings on pre-planned, non-emergency placement changes. I’ve heard of judges saying that none of that applies to a sua sponte modification of placement (which is often in response to a party’s subtle invitation), so yeah this is going great.

Even with the difficulties, though, I like SB 80’s potential. It’s a chance to document problems in placements and have a more deliberate discussion. Prior to SB 80, an exit interview would be done with the child if (a) the child had been there at least 30 days, and (b) the child wanted to talk about it. That wasn’t capturing information from the kids with frequent moves, the interviewed kids weren’t disclosing much, and the Department was filing the interview forms away and not doing much with them. Maybe the new process will be better at identifying problem placements.

Is SB 80 reducing placement changes? No, not yet. Placement changes slowed down significantly during the lockdowns, but have reverted back to the trendline afterwards. Changes to the system take at least two years to have any effect, so we will have to wait and see.

Source: DCF Dashboards

Need something to read?

So many amazing books and articles came out in the last two years. Here are a few things to try.

Start with a very recent research article about the stunning pervasiveness of the system’s investigation and removal functions: State-level variation in the cumulative prevalence of child welfare system contact, 2015–2019. Black children had a cumulative risk of investigation that was over 50% in 29 states. The states with the highest risk for Black kids were Indiana 79%, Montana 74%, and Arkansas/Kentucky 73%. White children had over 50% risk in only 3 states: Arkansas 62%, Kentucky 55%, and Indiana 54%. Even if you think the racial disparities are driven by underlying rates of child and family need, think about the effect on a community (Black, Brown, and rural poor white) when its government uses investigation and removal as the primary child welfare tool while other communities receive investments and support.

Source: State-level variation…

One look at that question is found in Dorothy Roberts’ Torn Apart, which updates her 2002 classic Shattered Bonds. It helps situate the foster care system in the modern discussion around abusive state police powers aimed at Black and Brown communities. It also sharply questions whether the billions of dollars invested annually in this intervention are justified on any policy or moral grounds. Page 43 contains a completely unsurprising quote from a long-serving, now-retired Miami judge that lays out the feigned helplessness of those in power to do anything but reproduce racial disparities. Says the judge, “If the choice is [removing Black children] or being maltreated, what choice do we have?”

Well, quite a lot of choices, actually. The government chooses how it spends its money and judges are elected to solve problems before them. We need to give them better tools. There is a growing movement in social work to stop contributing to state harms and come up with better solutions. The former Dean of the University of Houston School of Social Work has been a prominent voice in that work. You could check out Interrogating the carceral state: Re-envisioning social work’s role in systems serving children and youth. If you hate the idea of interrogating carceral states, then don’t worry, the carceral state struck back and Dean Dettlaff is now just Professor Dettlaff. That really only made him stronger.

In the legal world, a lot of work has been done over the last years on the topic of defending families from abusive state intervention. For a quick read on program design, I recommend Julia Hernandez and Tarek Ismail’s Radical Early Defense Against Family Policing. It provides a framework for understanding family defense legal programs and their potential for change or cooption by the systems they are set up to challenge.

Looking for a game?

I suspect people don’t read my stuff for video game reviews, but that’s not going to stop me. I played a lot of good games this year and this one stood out.

Pentiment took me by surprise. I got it for the art but found myself completely absorbed in the story, even when it was ploddingly slow. You are a 16th century artist in a Bavarian abbey, but it is one of the best litigation games I’ve played. You build up an imperfect case against a murderer, direct a mob towards them, and then spend the rest of the game dealing with the consequences and wondering if you were wrong. Pentiment is a story about how trials are not justice and communities process collective trauma based on their shared history, personal relationships, and access to power. Also, you can pet the dogs and most of the cats. If you have 15 hours to kill and like text-heavy adventures, I recommend it.

That’s it for now

Let’s see if this gets me back in the rhythm. I’m going to aim for putting out posts on Thursdays, but I may also not do that at all. Who knows? Like and subscribe, as they say.


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